At first glance, The Peanuts Movie seems like a bad idea. To take the classic, Bill Melendez–directed Peanuts specials of the 1960s and '70s — handmade, slight, charming little toss-offs that nevertheless have had a strangely enduring pull over the years — and adapt them for the hyperadrenalized, CGI, 3-D age feels like you’re crossing two streams that should never meet. So watching the film itself comes as something of a relief: Somehow, this Peanuts feels familiar, even cozy. I can’t make any great claims for it, but it feels like the return of an old friend.
One thing that makes the Peanuts stories resonate so much has been their very wise, realistic understanding of human behavior. The appeal of Charlie Brown as a character, of course, is immediate: We all feel like him from time to time. Some of us more than others, sure, but go find the most popular, confident kid at any elementary school, and they’ll probably have more than their share of Charlie Brown moments, when they’re either mired in self-doubt or feel like the one person who somehow missed the assembly where crucial life lessons were doled out.
The Peanuts Movie does a solid job of indulging Chuck’s haplessness, while offering the requisite rays of hope. We start with him trying and failing to fly a kite in winter — ever resourceful, he’s convinced this season’s a better time for it, since the kite-eating tree that always foils him won’t be as big of a factor — and proceed swiftly to his adoration of the notorious Little Red-Haired Girl, who’s just moved into town. Much of the film focuses on Charlie Brown’s self-defeating attempts to woo his eternal object of affection. He’s his own worst enemy in that regard — praying she’ll sit next to him on the school bus and then, when she does so, immediately disappearing under the seats and crawling away. If things start to look good, he’ll find ways to bring himself down. “I’m not ready for a relationship,” he declares at one point. “What if I need a mortgage? I can’t afford an escrow … This could be the worst thing that ever happened to her!” When things do objectively go his way — as they do when, against all expectations, he gets an elusive perfect score on a surprise test in school, we know that something will come around to pull the rug out from under him.
Meanwhile, Snoopy continues to be a beacon of confidence and competence — somehow both Charlie Brown’s wingman and his foil. Running concurrently with his owner’s story is the iconic beagle’s own adventures — part of a novel he’s writing, of course — as a World War I flying ace, fighting the Red Baron and pursuing a beautiful fellow flying dog named Fifi. These are the moments when the film most indulges in the 3-D, action-y stuff, but to its credit, it remains in the simple aesthetic of the old Peanuts specials. For all his imaginative flights of fancy, Snoopy’s still a Midwesterner at heart; his doghouse/plane is still firmly planted on the ground.
The Peanuts Movie is a little whisper of a movie, and you may find yourself feeling the following day like you saw it months ago. That might actually be part of its accomplishment. Those classic TV specials were defined by their imperfections, by their homespun quality, which seemed to fit with Charlie Brown’s own sense of provincial modesty — and that in turn probably reflected Charles Schulz’s own view of life. One could say that the Peanuts strips and shows themselves have endured over the years in part because they hearken back to a simpler time. The same could now be said for this film.